Silvion Oscar Lewenstein (18 January 1917 – 23 February 1997) was a British theatre and film producer, who helped create some of the leading British theatre and film productions of the 1950s and 1960s.
Early life and career
Born in Hackney, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had fled antisemitism, Lewenstein spent most of his childhood in Hove, Sussex. His father's formerly successful plywood business went into a decline during his teens, the family returned to London, and the younger Lewenstein left school.
A former member of the Young Communist League, now active in the Communist Party itself, he became involved in the Unity Theatre movement via his friendship with Ted Willis. After a period working for the Unity Theatre just after the war, he briefly took up the same role at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, and later at the Royal Court Theatre from 1952 until 1954. Lewenstein co-founded the English Stage Company in 1954 with director George Devine and dramatist Ronald Duncan.
In the West End he produced Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera in 1956 and Saint Joan of the Stockyards in 1964. He was also responsible for three of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop productions, including Brendan Behan's The Hostage and Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey transferring to the West End at around the same time, to the detriment of Littlewood's company.
Lewenstein was the producer of, among other films, The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965) and Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987). Earlier he had been involved in supervising Tom Jones (1963) and other Woodfall films, a company of which he was a director from 1961 to 1967. Lewenstein optioned Joe Orton's screenplay Up Against It after Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles, had rejected it as a project for his clients, but the film was never made. The theatre and film director Lindsay Anderson, who thought Lewenstein was "the strangest mixture of foolishness and (sometimes) good intuitions" worked with him on The White Bus (1967), a short film based on one of Shelagh Delaney's short stories.
In 1970, after Neville Blond died, Lewenstein became chairman of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre jointly with Robin Fox, and then sole chairman in 1971 after Fox died. He went on to be artistic director of the English Stage Company from 1972 to 1975, after two years as chairman. In October 1974, Lewenstein instigated a letter to The Times, signed by 13 other theatre directors, over a perception that the funding of the new National Theatre building would starve the rest of subsided theatre in Britain. Peter Hall, then NT artistic director, called him a "shit and a creep" to his face in a chance encounter at the National Film Theatre. Orton was a writer Lewenstein much admired, and Lewenstein while artistic director of the Royal Court organised a season of the dramatist's work, which included a successful revival of What the Butler Saw in a production by Lindsay Anderson.
Among the thousands who had left the Communist Party in 1956, Lewenstein remained a socialist for the rest of his life. He married the potter (and later journal editor) Eileen Edith Lewenstein (née Mawson) in 1952, his second wife; the couple had two sons. His wife survived him until 2005. Lewenstein's memoir Kicking Against the Pricks: A Theatre Producer Looks Back was published in 1994 by Nick Hern Books.
- Robert Murphy "Lewenstein, (Silvion) Oscar (1917–1997)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- William Grimes, "Oscar Lewenstein, 80, Theater and Film Producer", New York Times, 10 March 1997; accessed 15 November 2012.
- Adam Benedick "Obituary: Oscar Lewenstein", The Independent, 31 March 1997; accessed 15 November 2012.
- Yael Zarhy-Levo, The Making of Theatrical Reputations: Studies from the Modern London Theatre, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008, p. 20.
- Zarhy-Levo, The Making of Theatrical Reputations, p. 22.
- Allan Kozinn, "Theater; A Beatles Movie Script Goes Onstage Instead", New York Times, 15 October 1989.
- Paul Sutton (ed.), The Diaries: Lindsay Anderson, London: Methuen, 2004, p. 200.
- Lindsay Anderson, ed. Paul Sutton, Diaries (2004), pp. 249, 505
- "Oscar Lewenstein", Royal Court Theatre.
- John Goodwin (ed.), Peter Hall Diaries, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983, pp. 121-2, 124-5.
- Emmanuel Cooper, "Obituary: Eileen Lewenstein", The Independent, 26 March 2005.